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By Chris Opfer
April 16 — Despite the backing of at least two of the three current Republican presidential candidates and similar laws in place in half the states, right-to-work legislation remains highly unlikely to move at the federal level any time soon, lawmakers and other observers told Bloomberg BNA.
“On principal, we support the idea, but we’re not going to tilt at windmills,” Randy Johnson, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits, told Bloomberg BNA April 8 about national right-to-work legislation. “That would be a fire storm on Capitol Hill and many Republicans would find it to be difficult to support.”
Advocates, a group that includes Republican White House candidates Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), would almost certainly face strong opposition from Democrats and the labor community to any attempts to move federal right-to-work bills (S. 391, H.R. 612) currently pending in both chambers of Congress.
Reticence from within the Republican party—from lawmakers who support right-to-work policies, but say they should be enacted by states individually—may pose an even bigger hurdle.
“I think good, conservative Republican philosophy says that it's a federalist policy: States have the right to be right and states have the right to be wrong,” Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told Bloomberg BNA April 14. “If a state wants a right-to-work law, it should have it, if a state doesn't, it shouldn't.”
Paul is the sponsor of the Senate bill that counts Cruz and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) among its supporters. The legislation would prohibit “union security” clauses in collective bargaining agreements that require union membership and payment of union dues, or payment by nonmembers of agency fees for the union's expenses related to collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance adjustment.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who also sponsored the measure, said national right to work “is one of the issues that would make our nation more competitive.” He likened the legislation to efforts to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which obligates contractors to pay workers on federally funded construction projects a “prevailing wage” set by the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division.
“Eliminating Davis-Bacon would reduce our prices and increase our opportunities, Scott told Bloomberg BNA April 16. “The same goes for right-to-work: I think it would increase our competitiveness around the world.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who is considering a run for the White House in 2016, recently signed into law a measure making his state the 25th in the union to adopt a right-to-work regime.
Other potential Republican candidates, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and current Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), all come from states that currently have right-to-work laws on the books, and all have expressed at least some support for the policy at the state level. Representatives for each of the potential candidates—or their political action committees—didn't immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA's request for comment about whether they support federal legislation.
Graham was among the sponsors of the Right to Work Protection Act, a bill introduced in 2011 that would have amended the National Labor Relations Act to provide that state right-to-work laws couldn't be preempted by the federal law.
The legislation was largely a response to an unfair labor practice complaint issued by the National Labor Relations Board against Boeing Co., in which the NLRB alleged that the company transferred certain workers to South Carolina from Washington state in order to take advantage of more employer-friendly labor laws in the state.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who also reportedly is mulling a White House run, has stepped back from the right-to-work fray—including a since-repealed law limiting public workers' collective bargaining rights and a failed push to add a right-to-work constitutional amendment to the statewide ballot in 2014— in his state in recent years.
Press Secretary Rob Nichols told Bloomberg BNA that a February Charleston Gazette story—in which Kasich was quoted as saying that the lack of a right-to-work law hasn't stopped businesses from thriving in Ohio—“accurately depicts” Kasich's position on the issue.
Even if a national right-to-work supporter were elected president, Alexander and Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said the legislation isn't likely to move in Congress.
“I can understand why our presidential candidates would want to do that, but personally I’d like to leave it to the states,” Roe, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, told Bloomberg BNA April 16. “I think on the radar screen, that’s not going to be an issue that the public is going to be as concerned with as employers may be.”
The “states know best” argument is one that many Republicans also have raised in opposition to recent efforts to raise the federal minimum wage. Roe acknowledged that it can be difficult to draw the line on labor and employment issues, but said some lawmakers are looking to federal legislation in response to recent actions by the National Labor Relations Board to “stack the deck” in favor of labor unions.
“I think this activist NLRB has caused a lot of reactive legislation,” Roe said. He and other House Republicans recently introduced two bills that would roll back recent NLRB representation election rule changes and tighten bargaining unit standards.
Still, Roe said the national right-to-work legislation may simply be a means for lawmakers to express their support for the policy without expecting it to go anywhere. He said he doesn't anticipate an aggressive push from the legislation's sponsors.
“As a matter of fact, I had breakfast with Senator Paul the other day and he didn’t mention it,” Roe said.
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